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Half-Life, Valve, 1998

When I get my PhD in theoretical physics, just like the hero of Half-Life, Gordon Freeman, I will be able to:

  • experiment on anomalous materials, even if it involves other dimensions
  • slaughter all of the aliens that start to invade from the other dimension when things go wrong
  • fight back against the entire U.S. Army when it tries to destroy my research facility
  • go to the aliens' home dimension and destroy everything there too

The part about fighting aliens is credible -- aliens are wimps compared to us humans, right? -- but when Freeman takes on the U.S. Army, that's when I really started laughing.

Half-Life is the latest entry in the competitive genre of first-person shooters, and it seems to be the one garnering the most critical acclaim. Why might that be? The game boasts a strong story, some interesting characters, levels with clever and challenging things to do, and so on. I admit that I liked playing Half-Life until I started to understand the structure of the game. The name of the level "On A Rail" sums up the entire game for me: the player is stuck on the path set out rather rigidly by the game's designers, Valve. Every confrontation, every bit of derring-do, every time you try to do something clever -- everything about the game is stage-managed down to the last detail. This is not always bad; more on this in a minute. My other complaint involves the game's difficulty level. I am a careful player, and I generally don't charge into new situations. I take stock, look around, and judge the threat level of the area. But at some points in the game, the success of the player absolutely required foreknowledge of what was going to happen. That's poor level design. What does this force the player into doing? Learning efficient saved-game management. As I started to understand the general level design, I started to see where, in each case, it would be a good idea for me to save my game before going any further. Why is that supposed to be fun?

I'll give two examples of this before writing about anything else, just to resolve the issue. In the level "Questionable Ethics," Gordon Freeman comes up to a small hallway blocked my boxes. Gordon takes out his trusty crowbar and starts to smash them up, grabbing anything that they may have contained. There's one box left, and Gordon peers around it to see what's up ahead. It's a dead end, and the last box has one of those nifty trip-wires on it -- break the beam of blue light and you trigger a huge explosion. This is something I consider a fair puzzle -- a sensible player would use the room to squeeze past the last box and take a look.

But there were plenty more puzzles of the unfair kind. Consider "Surface Tension," where Gordon is climbing around on a cliff. He needs to get down a hundred foot drop, but how to do that? My complaint here is partly due to the lack of a proper manual. If I was walking around a cliff-like area in real life, and was forced to climb down a steep slope, I would know what to do -- I've lived enough years in my body to know how to move my arms and legs in the way that lets me lower myself over the edge, find foot- and hand-holds, and so on, all the way to the bottom. Even if the game-player takes the Hazard Course (a training course separate from the main story of the game), you find out nothing about the proper way to climb down a cliff in Half-Life: crouch, look over edge, gradually move forward until you start to fall. At that point, the interface considers you as a rock-climber, and you suddenly grab hold of a crack in the rocks. Proceeding down the cliff, face-forward (i.e., you are looking straight down, as if your face were where your feet are supposed to be and vice versa); in this way, you get to the bottom. How did I find this out? I first tried to slide down a huge pipe nearby, which ended in death. Then I looked around, and accidentally went over the edge.

The game begins promisingly enough. Gordon Freeman rides into work on a transportation system, which is not a mundane thing, considering that he works at the Black Mesa Research Facility, and the Black Mesa is enormous. Freeman goes through tunnel after tunnel and gate after massive gate. A guard lets him into a deeper level, and then he can stop and talk to various scientists, who generally blab a great deal and sometimes say something helpful. After enough paranoid security to keep the Cigarette-Smoking Man from The X-Files happy (and I'm making that reference deliberately, more in a minute), Freeman finally arrives at the Test Chamber -- some kind of anomalous material awaits a test. The scientists crank up the voltage and the next thing you know, the interdimensional forces have wreaked havoc and the place is a mess.

Freeman goes on a one-man killing rampage, slaughtering all of the alien lifeforms that have invaded our dimension. Later, the army arrives to destroy the evidence that the government has screwed up. Freeman takes on tanks, helicopters, snipers, and innumerable squads of marines. After defeating the U.S. Army, Freeman proceeds to commit a little bit of genocide on the other side of the dimensional portal. Freeman kills Nihilanth, the monstrous alien mastermind, and then gets whisked away by the mysterious man in a suit. At several points during the game, the alert gamer could notice this man, generally at points where he could observe Freeman in combat. As it turns out, this whole fiasco has been a hiring exercise, and you better not turn down the job offer. Half-Life could have used a little more imagination in this area -- Men in Black and The X-Files have covered this kind of material with far more flair.

The typical gameplay does not require much in the way of imagination. A careful gamer can cut down on the number of saved games required to survive, but that is not exactly cleverness or intelligence. As I stated earlier, "On A Rail" describes the game perfectly. Is there a button nearby? You better get Freeman to push it, because you'll need it later on ("it" being whatever the button activated, and the exact nature of "it" is largely unimportant). Freeman's progress through a level is stage-managed, right down to how and when he will fight some bad guy. I was always shocked when I noticed an option, or an alternate way of solving a problem -- it certainly didn't happen very often. The actual execution of many moves required enormous save/reload patience, but I never felt like I was exerting my brain. The player who leaves an enemy unkilled is asking for trouble -- Half-Life, like many other computer games, does not let the player be anything other than a mass murderer. After playing a game like Thief (with the way it lets the player sneak past, knock unconscious, or kill any particular enemy), I have seen demonstrated that there are alternatives and that they can be fun. Has Thief ruined other first person shooter games for me? No, I would rather state it like this: Thief, while by no means perfect, is more like the kind of game I've always wanted to play.

Perhaps the oddest thing about Half-Life is the way sound doesn't affect anything, unlike Thief. Gordon Freeman is one loud physicist. He is constantly blowing things up, and he loves to smash things with his trademark crowbar. Then he goes to peer around a corner, and there's an alien who has noticed nothing. And it's not just that the one type of alien is deaf -- everyone is like that. Even the marines, who often say, "I hear something," don't notice anything until you enter their line of sight. This lack of proper sound propagation in most of Half-Life is only emphasized by a later scene where Gordon has to evade a huge tentacle alien, who can't see you but can hear you. If Valve could code hearing for the tentacle aliens, why not for everybody?

Half-Life is likely one of the smoothest and most polished examples of this type of game; it has the potential to be something more than typical but that potential is largely untapped.

First posted: February 2, 1999; Last modified: February 24, 2004

Copyright © 1999-2004 by James Schellenberg (

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